The Watermelon Woman: The Enduring Cool of a Black Lesbian Classic
In 1996, Cheryl Dunye—the writer, actor, and filmmaker—released The Watermelon Woman, a seminal work of autofiction in which a young Black lesbian filmmaker named Cheryl (played by Dunye) searches for the identity of a beautiful Black actress who played a mammy character in a 1930s drama. In the credits, the mysterious actress is listed only as “The Watermelon Woman,” complicating Cheryl’s mission.
Cheryl is clearly based on Dunye, who also tapped friends and family members, like her mother, Irene Dunye, to make appearances in the film. The director has a range of works like this, which she dubs “Dunyementaries.” Upon its release, The Watermelon Woman the first narrative feature to be released by an out Black lesbian filmmaker.
To this day, The Watermelon Woman is an impressive landmark work, a wry, deeply stylish comedy that is a must-watch for ’90s essentialists. In early June, as anti-police-brutality protests roiled around the nation, Criterion selected it as one of the films it would feature in its Black cinema spotlight, alongside titles like Daughters of the Dust and Losing Ground, lifting its paywall so curious patrons can watch the movie for free.
Since releasing The Watermelon Woman, Dunye has released several more films and become a prolific TV director, helming episodes of series such as Dear White People, Queen Sugar, and the forthcoming Lovecraft Country. In a recent phone call from her home in Oakland, the director reflected on The Watermelon Woman’s legacy and more.
Vanity Fair: When was the last time you rewatched The Watermelon Woman?
Cheryl Dunye: Within the last six months. I was at a screening somewhere. I always watch it up to the point where my mom appears in that interview. She’s not with me anymore, so that’s when I get up and take a little stretch out into whatever city I’m screening the film in. I’ve traveled the world at least three or four times talking about the film.
Now it’s part of Criterion’s Black cinema spotlight series. Was that a surprise for you? Did they reach out?
No! Nobody reached out, which was like, what! Why didn’t anybody reach out, especially at this moment? But it’s still an honor. This is a great thing for me and my work and the message that it brings. The world of distribution and cinema is about dollars and cents and they took down the dollars and cents to allow more people to have access to stories about diverse themes. I’m for it. When the dollars and cents go back up, let’s have another conversation.
When I was looking for auteurs who looked like me, or worked like me, or thought like me, I was only able to fulfill them in separate categories: People who were playing with form like [Jean-Luc] Godard, or early African filmmakers, like Ousmane Sembene—folks who somehow came out on a Criterion DVD or videotape. Seeing Criterion’s stuff was like wow as a young filmmaker, so to be on their channel in this new, modern age is amazing. I’m getting ticks and bleeps from people all over the place about it.
Ticks and bleeps!
[laughs] Yeah. New fans, young fans, international people.
You created this lane for yourself and you’re a touchstone for a lot of young filmmakers, especially young Black lesbian filmmakers. The Watermelon Woman was the first film to be released that was directed by a Black lesbian woman. Were you aware of that at the time?
I was! Oh yeah. Because I was looking for it, right? It was the first Black lesbian narrative feature. I think the first person who I knew as a Black lesbian documentary filmmaker is Michelle Parkerson, who was actually my professor at one point at Temple University and introduced me to [poet] Essex Hemphill. It was a whole group of people back at this moment in the mid to late 1980s, and 1990s, who were in a kind of cultural production world of making matter. All the children of Audre Lorde. We all were doing our work. I wanted to do narrative. I remember Go Fish [a groundbreaking lesbian drama] and a few other things were happening in the early ’90s with [producer] Christine Vachon and [production companies] Good Machine and Killer Films. Nobody was doing Black lesbian features. I was like, why was everybody else was getting to tell a story? We need a Black lesbian feature film, this doesn’t make any sense. So I knew I was making that moment happen.
The film premiered at Berlinale. What was Berlin like for you?
Do you still have the Teddy bear?
I don’t because I had kids and it got mixed up.
They should send you another one.
I could probably reach out to them! See if they could send me a piece of glass or whatever. Or a Teddy bear.
There’s so much about the film that’s iconic, like the aesthetic of the film. The looks, the drip.
Yeah, people do comment about the crazy shirts. And I was wearing a dress?! [laughs] There was a Sanford and Son shirt I was wearing at the video store. That was my favorite one, ’cause it was big and silly.
Tags: CHERYL DUNYE